They are 6-0-1 in their last seven games, including the fact that they are currently on a five-game winning streak.
But tonight, they will face off against the resurgent Phoenix Coyotes—a team that has persevered through their managerial hardships this season to be firmly planted in the playoff picture in the Western Conference in sixth place, just two points behind their division rival Los Angeles Kings and just six points in front of their quarry for tonight’s game.
It’s possible that these two teams could be two of the hottest teams in the NHL at the moment.
The Wild have won their last five and have scored at least five goals in four of them (though one of the five-goal games was the team’s shootout victory over Anaheim on Friday).
While the Wild have been hot offensively, the Coyotes have been hot in their own end, giving up two or less goals in each of their previous five games, starting with their 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames.
In the previous meeting this season between the two teams, the ‘Yotes skated away victorious with the 3-2 victory as Scottie Upshall rudely ruined the celebration of Antti Miettinen’s tying goal with one of his own just 19 ticks later.
This is a different Wild team than the one that suited up against Phoenix on November 18, however. They are playing with confidence and poise and are looking the best that they have looked all season long.
As was the case on Friday, I don’t have any information for the ‘Yotes lineup, but here are the likely lines for the Wild according to team scribe Glen Andresen.
According to Andresen and Mike Russo, of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune , team bowling ball Cal Clutterbuck is still feeling some of the effects of the flu that kept him out of Saturday’s game against Nashville, but he is feeling much better than he was.
If he is able to go (and the odds are pretty good that, if he’s with the team, he’ll go), look for James Sheppard to get the nod over enforcer extraordinaire Derek Boogaard, as Sheppard played a great game against Nashville and got his first tally of the season.
In fact, for those Sheppard detractors out there (we know who you are), the Shepster has a goal and two assists in his last five games, with a plus-two rating and 11 shots on goal. Now I know he’s been having a bad season, but with those stats? Come on...Let’s start fresh and see what he can do at wing. What do you say?
On defense, you can likely expect more of the same with Jaime “Why Can’t He Spell His First Name Right” Sifers getting the nod over John Scott.
In nets, you’ll see Niklas Backstrom for the Wild after getting an off night against Nashville.
What to Watch For
The let down.
With two teams riding as high as the Wild and the Coyotes, eventually a let down is inevitable. Both teams have been playing fantastic hockey over the last few games and both teams are “due,” so to speak.
The problem that arises with being “due,” is that it’s much easier for a hot defensive team to force their opponent to lay an egg than the other way around.
I’ll be perfectly blunt. The Wild have not been that hot defensive team over the last five games. While the Coyotes come in with a paltry 1.80 goals against over their last five, the Wild sport a robust 3.20 goals against average over their last five. Their last five have also included a lot of battling from behind—something that will take its toll on any team.
Both teams also distribute their scoring well.
What will be important is to see who has players that step up.
Over the last few games, it has been the Wild’s first line of Brunette, Koivu and Miettinen that have done the stepping up. This line will likely be drawing a bulk of Phoenix’s defensive attention tonight and will, quite simply, need to be effective. The good news for Minnesota, however, is that their bottom three lines are starting to be equally as effective.
In Nashville, Sheppard and Martin Havlat both played their best games of the season and the team continued to get strong play from newcomers Andrew Ebbett and G-Lat.
For Phoenix, it will hinge largely on the play of Ilya Bryzgalov, who has been spectacular this season. With a 1.79 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage (not to mention his three shutouts), Bryz has been on fire this season and the Wild will have to find a way to cool him off.
Key(s) to the Game
Shoot. Shoot early and shoot often. From anywhere and everywhere.
When playing a hot goalie, this is probably your best strategy. Pepper him with shots and eventually you’ll start to see some cracks in the armor.
This is exactly what the Wild have to do in order to break down the defenses of Mr. Bryzgalov.
The team is extremely familiar with him from his time in Anaheim and they know exactly what they are getting with him in net—they just need to get to him. The more shots they can get on net, the better off they will be.
Don’t give up the lead.
The Wild have been scored on first in eight of their last nine games. Against a solid defensive team like the Coyotes, this is a trend that needs to stop.
While the Wild have a team that has confidence while playing from behind, the Coyotes have a team that has confidence while playing with the lead. It is paramount that the Wild get out to a fast start in this game. If they don’t and allow a couple early goals, it may not be as easy to come from behind.
If the Coyotes score first, this game might be all but in the bag because Phoenix can do what they do best. Shut down and play mistake-free hockey.
The puck drops tonight at 8 PM CST and is televised on Fox Sports.